Faculty Spotlight: Professor Sarah Hansen on Ensuring Student Success in Large Classrooms

by | Sep 12, 2017

Sarah Hansen, Lecturer in the Discipline of Chemistry, faced a teaching challenge in her General Laboratory course. Every student came to class with a different level of prior knowledge. Some of her undergraduate students were well on their way to a degree in the sciences and taking the class to meet a requirement. Others were jumpstarting a career in the sciences.

As a recipient of the Provost’s Hybrid Learning Course Redesign and Delivery award, Hansen received support from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to redesign her course to better meet the diverse needs of her students and increase their engagement in the course. She decided to use the flipped classroom model: students would be introduced to materials online before class and participate in pre-class quizzes to assess their learning. This approach created time during class for students to work individually and in groups on solving problems. Students would use an online Audience Response Systems to provide feedback on their understanding throughout the class session, something she had previously accomplished through students filling out index cards. Rather than assuming she knew what her students needed, these tools gave Sarah detailed information about her students’ learning. This information allowed her to adjust her instructional focus during each lecture to better meet the specific needs of her students.

Watch the video and read the short Q&A below to hear Hansen reflect on the teaching challenges she faced and the lessons faculty can take away from her experience.

Tell us about the course you teach. Who are your students?

I’ve been teaching the general chemistry lab since 2004. This course is an independent course separate from the lecture course in general chemistry, which means that we have students at all different places in the general chemistry lecture sequence. That poses unique challenges: we have a number of postbacs, we have engineering students, we have undergrads from the entire Columbia community taking this course. That’s one of the things I love about it: for some students, this is their terminal chemistry course and for other students, this is the beginning of their undergraduate chemistry career.

How did the range of prior knowledge affect the class dynamic?

During lecture, we noticed some students were frantically writing notes and really overwhelmed: the material was coming at them too fast, the material was completely new to them. Other students were familiar with a lot of the content and either checked out or just knew the material and needed to be challenged some more.

Can you describe what it was like using the flipped classroom model and what that experience was like for your students?

Before students arrive, they’re asked to watch videos. Sometimes there’s a webpage with additional content read over, sometimes a simulation. But usually it’s videos: one to four minutes long, totaling anywhere from 14 to 25 minutes. It really depends on the topic and how much material we need to cover, how in depth I feel like we need to get into it before they come to lecture. They also have a pre-class quiz that takes most students about two minutes and allows them to assess their own learning.

Once they come to class, we usually start out with an online poll (using PollEverwhere) to see where students are at, what they’re wondering about, what they’re asking for more content on. We’ve started incorporating large sections of time where they are problem-solving. More and more we’re shifting toward maybe 20 minutes of individual and group problem-solving. Throughout that time, I will be walking around and seeing what people are talking about, sometimes making announcements or offering tips or suggestions. Sometimes I will pause group problem solving and try to bring everyone together to discuss some concepts if it sounds like everyone is thinking about similar things or has similar questions.

Did you have any techniques to encourage students to actively participate in discussion during the group problem-solving time?

At the beginning of the semester, we divide our 360 students into five groups. These groups are then further divided for problem-solving in small groups. To prepare students to participate in this group work, we structure in time for students work on a question or problem independently, before consulting with their peers. This approach gives students time to organize their thoughts and engage with the material in whatever level and form they can, even if it’s just writing down some questions. If students understood the material well, they have a solution to the question that they can share with their peers. If they thought they understood the material, they can compare their work with their peers and make adjustments based on feedback from their partners and the TAs. If they had no idea, working independently gives them the opportunity to at least read the question, ask the TAs and instructors questions, and be better prepared to work on the problem with their peers in small groups.

How did these pre-class quizzes and polling tools help inform your teaching?

I have access to the pre-class quiz so I can see where those students are and what they need out of the lecture. When they come to class, we do a number of polling questions or just some assessments to get a sense of where this population is at right now. I like to frame the lecture as somewhat of a choose-your-own-adventure because based on their answers I’m going to tailor the class based on what they need to talk about. The idea is that they leave with an understanding of the material they understood and some of the problems that they might want to revisit on the discussion board or in office hours.

It sounds like TAs play a critical role in making the independent and collaborative problem-solving components a success. Who are the TAs for this course and how do you prepare them for this teaching approach?

We have Lead Teaching Assistants (LTAs) who help create a smaller classroom experience in the larger lecture hall. These LTAs are interested in learning new pedagogical strategies and supporting the hybrid course format. We all attended a CTL training on active learning together then used this experience as lens to discuss each week’s class. We started out with a few in-person discussions then took our planning online, by creating an unpublished canvas discussion (viewable only by the instructors and TAs) we were able to plan before and debrief after each class. This asynchronous platform allowed us to collaborate and it made our discussions accessible to the regular TAs without requiring additional time commandment by them. This also provided me with a log of our discussion, an excellent resource for planning the next semester.

Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re doing to evaluate if the flipped classroom model is successful at both better engaging your students and better meeting their needs?

A large amount of data is created during an online course. By working with the IRB to collect this data we are able to investigate what happens when students engage with the course resources. We are analyzing which resources students use, how they use them, and their success in the course. For example, we’ve found students who use the pre-class quiz resource tend to take this quiz multiple times (a score is awarded but correct answers are not revealed). CTL helped develop a pre-, post-, and mid-semester assessment to help measure student attitudes towards the course format and their confidence in using the concepts we study. This data along with resource use has the potential to show what students think about the course in addition to how they engage with the resources.

How can other faculty benefit from collaborating with the CTL?

The CTL has really provided support in the form of ideas. That’s been the biggest thing. I had some problems and I had a few ideas but I wasn’t really sure how to implement them. The CTL provided support for developing the ideas: how to use the polling, best practices for active learning in the classroom, how to train TAs in active learning, and how to look at the assessment data I was getting from the course.

If you’re interested in redesigning your course, learn more about our Course Redesign Institute for faculty.

If you’re interested in trying a flipped classroom approach, learn more about our Active Learning Institute: Flipped Classrooms and Beyond for faculty.  

If you’re interested in incorporating polling, pre-class quizzes, or other educational technologies in your classroom, contact your Learning Designer liaison at the CTL.